You say Ke-no-ah and I say Keen-wah

And here is Lizi Richards’s first blogpost (again, it isn’t as far as I know an issue in The Netherlands!): 

Even in 2018, a strong argument can be made that the British general public are obsessed with accents. Lesley Milroy, in an article called “Britain and the United States: Two nations divided by the same language (and different language ideologies)” (Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 2001), stated that in Britain it is accent that is used as a measure to decide on whether something is standard or non-standard. For example, last year, BBC programme announcer Russell Evans was criticised for pronouncing ‘th’ as ‘f’, a common pronunciation feature in London and the South East today. In response, Evans said: “The reactions are merely an illustration of some of the limited viewpoints which continue to compound separatism and prevent inclusion in the workforce from becoming a reality.” A few years ago, in 2013, another BBC employee, journalist Steph McGovern, was offered £20 by a viewer “to correct” her Teeside accent. As these cases highlight, despite a concerted effort by organisations such as the BBC to “democratise” attitudes towards accent, a certain section of the British public only wants to listen to Received Pronunciation (RP), particularly on the BBC.

So, what do these two cases have to do with quinoa, popularly perceived as a food of the British middle-classes?  Well, it appears that there is a right and a wrong way to pronounce it. Googling “how to pronounce quinoa” will turn up around 985,000 hits. Videos such as this or this one are clear. It’s “keen-wah”. Mispronouncing it will earn you disappointed shakes of the head and barely hidden tuts from surrounding shoppers in Marks and Spencer and Waitrose, the supermarkets of the middle class. While out shopping one day, my mother was approached by a stranger who felt it was her duty to correct my mother for saying “ke-no-ah”. I should add that my mother has a very RP accent, so it appears that even when your accent is good enough to be a BBC presenter, some Brits like to judge you even further. The pronunciation of quinoa helps classify you as U or non-U. “Ke-no-ah” is perceived as decidedly non-U.

However, there has been a fight back to this prescriptive attitude. The Oxford English Dictionary shows that the word quinoa  originally derives from Quechua, a pre-Conquest Latin American language. The word travelled to Europe via Spanish, where is it pronounced as “kee-NO-wah”. Therefore, maybe the “keen-wah” prescriptivists need to relax their standards and accept both pronunciations. Language Log (started by Mark Liberman and Geoffrey Pullum at the University of Pennsylvania), contains a blog post on this subject, written by Victor Mair. Mair very sensibly concludes: “The ‘correct’ pronunciation of the word is so hotly contested that I have decided not to be vexed about trying to get it ‘right’.” This laissez-fair attitude to quinoa’s pronunciation is also found on the website for the largest importer of quinoa into the UK.

It is fascinating that the group who are already held up as the “ideal” type of speaker in the UK – those having an RP accent – are still looking for ways with which to impose further rules of acceptability.  The swiftness with which an innocuous food, quinoa, has been used to gauge and reinforce class differences (particularly in the UK) shows that nearly 20 years later Milroy is correct, and that accent prescriptivism is still alive and kicking within a certain section of the British public.


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On the front page no less

Most of the usage problems studied by Mittins et al. in the late 1960s (Attitudes to English Usage, 1970) have since increased in acceptability. This is what we tested by repeating their survey in the form of usage polls on this blog, and it is what Carmen Ebner and I, for some features at least, reported on in our article ‘Prescriptive attitudes to English usage‘, published last year. To our surprise, though, we found that dangling adjuncts (as in Pulling the trigger, the gun went off) had increased least of all. Why hadn’t it? Good question, but today I want to raise a different question.

My question today has to do with the announcement of an interview with the Dutch writer Esther Gerritsen on the front page of  yesterday’s NRC Weekend, a quality Dutch newspaper. “Als kind was Jezus mijn grote voorbeeld,” it reads. In English: “As a child Jesus was my great example.” Surely this was not right? But the interview actually did cite Esther Gerritsen’s words like this. It must be professional deformation that made me trip over this even in Dutch, but more interestingly, why is there such a difference in attitude to the dangling adjunct between the Dutch and the English? Finding out that he had used a dangling participle in a letter to the editor made Ian McEwan cringe with embarrassment (Mother Tongue), but clearly not Esther Gerritsen or the NRC editors. How come there are such different attitudes to the dangling adjunct between these two languages?

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No complaint tradition in The Netherlands? (ctd.)

I’m teaching another MA course on prescriptivism this semester, this time with the general research question as to how much of what is in the English usage guides reflects non-standard language use. All students in the course are once again expected to write blog posts on topics relating to the course that attracts their attention. Here is the first, by Emmy Stevens. 

In the blogpost No Dutch complaint tradition?, published about two years ago, an interesting comparison was drawn between the English complaint tradition and the absence of one in The Netherlands. The Dutch rarely send letters of complaint to the editors of newspapers, whereas English readers seem to get upset about language all the more quickly. Do Dutch people never complain about language at all? This seems highly unlikely, as Dutch people have complaining as one of their favourite hobbies: traffic jams, high taxes, and the weather, which is always too cold, too windy, too wet, or even too hot. But do they never complain about the Dutch language? This seems highly unlikely.

Complaining about the Dutch language? What does English have to do with this? There is in fact an interesting link here. As The Netherlands tries to be an international leader and welcomes millions of tourists every year, there is a need to be able to speak a language that is understood by more than just the thirty million people or so around the globe that speak Dutch. The language of our neighbours across the North Sea comes in handy, and during the past few decades, English has become more and more prominent in Dutch society: on television, in international companies, and in the educational system – these are just a few places where Dutch met this strong opponent.

Especially in universities and colleges, there is an ongoing debate on the usage of English. Some argue for, others against. Do we want to keep our strong position in international research and attract students from abroad? More English, please. Do we want our Dutch students to master their mother tongue at a highly proficient level? Dutch only. It is difficult to find a solution that satisfies all participants in the debate, but the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences gave it a try and published a document last summer in which they advocate more English at universities while maintaining the level of Dutch. Especially the first part of their recommendation evoked a lot of criticism, and that is where we return to the question of Dutch letters-to-the-editor.

During the past summer, De Volkskrant, a mainstream Dutch quality newspaper, published at least ten letters in which readers, including university teachers and students, pronounced themselves either for or against the use of English in Dutch higher education. The contributors who were most strongly opposed to using English felt this as a threat not only to the Dutch language, but also to Dutch society as a whole. Is English going to replace Dutch altogether? In one of the letters, Rint Sybesma, professor of Chinese linguistics at the University of Leiden, described a scenario in which we teach all of our children in English rather than Dutch. After a few generations, we would come to a situation where Dutch is completely abolished.

This letter upset quite a few readers, and Sybesma received threatening emails by people who are strong supporters of the Dutch language. Someone prescribing which language they should speak evidently aroused feelings of agitation and even hatred. However, what these people failed to understand was that Sybesma’s letter was not serious. It was just meant as an ironic contribution to the discussion. This example illustrates how easily Dutch people get upset about their language and specifically the potential threat of the English language slowly conquering the Netherlands.

Prescribing English as the language of instruction at Dutch universities to some implies that the English language is considered a better language. And that of course is something the proud Dutch do not want to admit. Dutch readers might not be as eager as the English by writing letters-to-the-editor for every language mistake they find in the newspaper, but when it comes to the hypothetical decline of the Dutch language as a whole, they are all the more eager to express their opinion in a complaint letter.


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Live and Learn – our very own copy

Truly delightful to see that someone responded to my call in December last year to donate any spare usage guides to our project: many thanks indeed, Paul Nance for this wonderful gift, a copy of Live and Learn (anon., 35th enlarged ed., published in London).

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On the late Harry Blamires …

How sad to come across his obituary in Church Times: Harry Blamires (1916-2017), who we once referred to on this blog as our oldest living usage guide writer, died on 21 November last year. The obituary lists his many achievements, and sums up what he will be remembered for. But for us he will be remembered as the author of The Queen’s English: The Essential Companion to Written English, published in 1994 and included in our HUGE database of usage guides and usage problems.

YouTube Obituary

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His, his or her, their

If people think singular they is a new feature in the English language, arising out of the need to express gender neutrality: it isn’t. There was already an article about the pronoun in 1975, by Ann Bodine. Very well worth reading, I find, even forty years on. But there is also a whole chapter in a novel  that deals with the issue, already in 1991: the opening chapter in Julian Barnes’s Talking it over. The usage, as the chapter shows, was already felt worthy of being defended in the the early 1990s.

In other words, it hasn’t ceased to amaze me why singular they was pronounced word of the year by the American Dialect Society in January 2016, since the form already got recognition from both scholars and literary authors long before that time. Or why people keep on complaining about its use. As Bodine argues, if the English pronoun system hadn’t been modelled on that of Latin, it would have included singular they as an alternative to he or she from the early days of the codification of grammar onwards. And from the point of view of this project, there would have been one less usage problem to bicker about. So let’s just accept it and go on using it, even in our writing.


Bodine, Ann. 1975. Androcentrism in prescriptive grammar: Singular “they”, sex-indefinite “he”, and “he or she”’. Language in Society 4, 129-146.

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Etiquette in the 21st century …

Good to know that the etiquette guide is still going strong, and still focusing on women’s social skills:

“There is a course on ‘personal and professional impact’ for women, which emphasises body language, presentation and effective communication.”

You can read more about strange English habits in the Guardian‘s long read.

Have a good holiday!



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